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Store is a real lesson for students

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

HOLYOKE In a space once occupied by the five and ten store at one of the busiest downtown corners, a group of students is learning the ins and outs of business the old-fashioned way: by actually being in business.

The Your Place coffee and ice cream shop at the corner of High and Suffolk Streets is operated by high school students, many from Dean Technical High School. Greg Shwartz, the executive director of the Solutions Community Development Corporation (CDC), which sponsors the program, explained the shop took several years to become a reality.

The shop was an out growth of a program about youth entrepreneurship conducted by Andrew Morehouse, previous director of the CDC. Morehouse has the students write a business plan for an ice cream shop.

Implementing that plan proved to be challenging, Schwartz said, and it was started in steps.

With the cooperation of the culinary arts program at Dean, the business students started an ice cream cart business selling ice cream made at the high school. It was a fixture last year at the Holyoke Farmers Market.

"It was teaching business by having a business," Schwartz said.

The exercise required students to using marketing and math skills and honed reading and writing as well, he added.

The shop, which opened two weeks ago, was funded by a number of grants, he said. Schwartz said the space's landlord has been very helpful to the program, which originally was to be in the basement of the former store. When the street level storefront became available, the business was moved there.

What the new shop will sell will be up to the teens who are running it.

"It's really about letting the youth makes decisions and learn from their decisions," Schwartz said.

The shop originally did not offer coffee, as when it was first conceived the Red Cat Café was still in business, and Schwartz said the shop's intention is not to compete with private businesses.

The shop offers coffee, soft serve ice cream made at the shop and ice cream made in the Dean kitchens, but it will have other products as well. There are also several computers with high speed Internet connections.

Gil Amador, the youth entrepreneur program director for the CDC, explained that the participating students could also use the shop to sell their own products. A team of students has been selling gift baskets they make, some of which were displayed in the window of the shop.

One student, Alexis Santiago, is participating in the shop after the success he had selling chocolate lollipops he made. He turned an investment of $36 in materials into $300 in gross sales, he said.

Your Place will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, although those hours might expand into the weekend as business grows, Amador said.

Schwartz said he is now working a proposal that would create a retail business incubator in the large basement of the building.